Walter Chen, the founding principal of a new Green Dot public middle school set to open in south Seattle this fall, has a pretty simple vision for the school: “I want it to be a rigorous, joyful place,” he said.
Simple, on the one hand, but incredibly complex when you think about what it was like to actually be in middle school. In my experience, “rigor” plus “middle school” did not typically equal “joy.”
But the more I hear him talk about it, the more I get the sense that maybe Walter, if anybody, can pull it off.
For one thing, he understands that before they can feel joy at school, kids have to first feel safe and accepted. More than that, though, he understands through lived experience the nuances of inequity in education—especially in the Seattle area, where Chen was born and raised.
“My parents were immigrants from Taiwan and always deeply concerned about education,” Chen said. “When we were really young they moved us [from Kent] to Mercer Island because they had just heard about the great public schools there.”
It took a few years for the impact of that move and for an understanding of what had been left behind, both in Kent and in Taiwan, to fully unfold, but as a young college student in Southern California, an education class led to an eye-opening experience for Walter.
“Because I got the opportunity to go out and visit schools,” Chen said, “I really was for the first time opened to the idea that not everyone has the same educational opportunities and outcomes, that your zip code, your race, your family’s income can change the complete trajectory of your life.”
Coming to understand that truth was enough to push Chen into a career in education, and after earning his B.A. in economics at Pomona College and master’s of education at University of California, Los Angeles, he taught middle-school math in a public school in South-Central Los Angeles for six years.
“I really got to see what it was like to work in an urban school and really partner with families,” Chen said. “I got to see the impact of not just being a school employee, showing up to work and teaching kids, but spending time in the community, going out on the weekends to the soccer games and to the swap meets and things like that. It was really a true community feel.”
When Walter and his wife moved to Seattle together, he sought another highly impacted school community to serve and to call home, but he also “started thinking bigger picture,” he said.
“How could I impact more students at a time,” he asked himself, “and really make a change in educational outcomes for kids?”
His answer led him back to school, and in completing the Danforth Program for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington, he refined his view of education as an urgent social justice issue, and it marked the beginning of putting down new roots in the Rainier Valley.
After an internship at SouthShore K-8 in Rainier Beach, Chen has continued to invest in southeast Seattle, spending two years as the assistant principal at Aki Kurose Middle School and two more as the principal of Graham Hill Elementary. He and his wife and young daughter also live in the neighborhood.
“I’m just deeply invested in this community and the social, academic and emotional well-being of our kids,” Chen said, “because I know that strong schools make strong communities. Being someone who works in the community, who lives in the community, and as a person of color—specifically an Asian-American—I’m very aware that children of color don’t see many representations of themselves in their teachers and their school leaders. I believe it’s important to provide that voice.”
For that reason, Chen hopes to build a staff at the new charter school that’s as diverse as the community they will serve. He plans “as much as possible to provide opportunities for people of color to work in education, because if [students] don’t see themselves in their teachers, then we won’t have teachers who are people of color who are representative of the community. If you don’t have teachers of color, you’ll never have leaders of color either.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture one of Walter’s first students coming in this fall as a sixth-grader, leaving Seattle Public Schools in another seven years as a high school graduate, and then returning in another seven to teach middle school in his old neighborhood—maybe at the same school Walter’s children will by then attend. And suddenly, as you consider the reality that we are always educating our babies’ future teachers, building schools grounded in equity that infuse joy and acceptance into their curriculum sounds less like a pipe dream and more like the only way forward. It starts to sound like a vision for a holistic education that nurtures students as it pushes them to new heights.
“I think it’s possible to have very high expectations and high structure and a very rigorous college-prep curriculum, but when you demand that and you push kids to be the best that they can be academically and to really succeed, you also have to make it fun to come to school, and to help them feel a lot of joy in school. To take pride in their school and take pride in their community. I think that’s my ultimate vision for this Green Dot Middle School in Southeast Seattle.”